Here, the Straight’s regular books-section contributors take a crack at the crazy-making task of narrowing 2015’s excellent field down to one title each.
The Booker-shortlisted novel A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, tracks four college friends—an attorney, actor, artist, and architect—through three decades, and is a portrait of fraternal love and the costs of sexual abuse. Unflinching in both the care and harm detailed, Yanagihara conveys their successes and struggles with profound depth, while distinguishing herself as a writer who can truly mesmerize.
I almost chose to write about Garth Risk Hallberg’s back-breaking, 944-page tome City on Fire (set in filthy, punk-fuelled ’70s New York), but if you want a truly excellent book that captures the chaotic energy of that decade, a better bet is Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child—which, if you get past the schmaltzy cover art, is an angry, engrossing novel that makes you love Naples, a city that never escaped its dirty past in the way New York did.
Hundreds of books about Bob Dylan have been published in the past 50 years. The biographies tend to be both repetitious and contradictory, while most of those on the music itself deal with his lyrics rather than his amazing melodic gifts. The smartest general work on the subject is Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz (2010). But few people so far this year have noticed the most original title to date—The Dylanologists by David Kinney. It’s an amazing maze of revelations about Dylan addicts (fans is too small a word) and his relations to them. It’s written journalistically, but is a fascinating sociological study that’s full of surprises rather than mere surmises.
Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream is a thoroughly researched takedown of the war on drugs. At the core of the British journalist’s case is one simple point: even the most addictive illicit substances are more harmful to people when they remain illegal. He illustrates this argument almost entirely with anecdotal narratives and in-depth character profiles, several of which are rooted here in Vancouver and continue to play out today. It’s a fast-paced review of entrenched government policies, and I couldn’t put it down.
Any well-made plot that focuses on a secret agent almost guarantees a page-turner, given all the treachery. But the communist mole who narrates Viet Thanh Nguyen’s brilliant debut novel, The Sympathizer, offers so much more. Awash in the 1970s, this subtle, sardonic confession of a nameless spy working in a Californian community of refugees deftly upends the self-obsessed stories the United States has told about the Vietnam War.
Political economist Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few demonstrates that we’ve entered another Gilded Age, with the new robber barons controlling platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon. He shows how politicians pander to monopolistic CEOs by repeatedly passing laws allowing them to crush competitors, squelch innovation, and line their pockets. This rigged game has led to economic stagnation and rampant inequality, but according to Reich, it can be fixed.